West Xtra: West Allegheny's great ride ends

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The exact circumstances are unclear, but at some point during last Saturday's PIAA Class AA boys soccer final in Hershey, West Allegheny center back Zach Graziani completely lost himself in the moment.

At Hersheypark Stadium in the biggest game of his life, fans in attendance numbering in the thousands, deadlocked in a scoreless tie against Holy Ghost Prep, some circumstance or another led to a brief stoppage in play.

A whistle sounds at field level. With his guard temporarily let down, Graziani loses himself.

"It might've been the first time it's happened to me," the senior said. "Your mind's so transfixed on the atmosphere. You see Hersheypark, the rollercoaster's right there. It sets in like, 'Oh wow, we're really here.'"

It was a fitting moment in what had been a storybook season up to that point. Incremental improvement year-by-year after being plagued for much of its history by results that were mediocre at the best of times, West Allegheny couldn't be touched this year. It was a true breakout.

Blending a brand of aggressive, attacking soccer with a suffocating, athletic defense, West Allegheny won the WPIAL title and pieced together an undefeated record throughout the regular and postseason heading into the PIAA final.

The blend of a strong senior class and young talent created a potent combination. Leading its 3-4-3 formation was a trio of talented underclassmen in Mike Cummings, Collin Wurst and Cooper Amos.

At the other end an experienced defense led by Graziani, a Robert Morris University recruit, and reliable goalkeeper Spencer Wolfe impressed.

In the postseason, West Allegheny did not allow a single goal ... until overtime of the state final.

A lapse? Not quite. Cruel fate is a more fitting description.

After about 10 minutes of overtime, West Allegheny goalkeeper Spencer Wolfe, riding a shutout streak of almost 650 minutes, collided with Holy Ghost Prep's Matthew Crawford en route to a loose ball.

By all accounts there was no malice in the contact. Most importantly, by the official's account there was no foul. And as he lay on the ground, in Wolfe's stomach there was no wind.

The defense scrambled but ultimately -- with the sure-handed Wolfe down and out of the play -- was not able to prevent Holy Ghost Prep from scoring the game-winner. A near-perfect season ended just like that, the storybook given an abrupt ending.

"That goal, it's just a breakdown," West Allegheny coach Kevin Amos said. "Something catastrophic happened and boom, it's in the net."

Heartbroken? Of course the players were, and understandably so.

"They were upset, obviously. A lot of them were crying, but I just give them a hug," Amos said. "After the game, we took a team photo. When it was done, I was like, 'Guys, stop. Look around here. We're the only ones playing today. This venue, this crowd. Look around."

Things settled on the bus ride back to the western side of the state. Spirits lifted bit-by-bit as the team reflected on all of the things it had accomplished this year -- a section title, the school's first WPIAL boys soccer title, its long undefeated and scoreless streaks.

It didn't erase the hurt, but it numbed it some. There's nothing wrong with the emotion, Amos said. It's a natural byproduct of putting your heart into something.

"If it doesn't hurt, it doesn't mean anything," he said. "I was proud of them. It was a great experience."

Graziani said that the loss -- a literal and figurative shot to the gut -- initially took away some of the year's shine. As time passes since the final whistle blew on his season, the year's luster has gradually returned.

"Not every season has a storybook ending," he said. "Some freak things happen, some rolls don't go your way. When you look at the meat of the season, some of the accolades, it was a great season for everyone involved, regardless of the ending.

"To end up in Hershey?" Graziani reflected for a few seconds. "It was an amazing, amazing season."

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